Shinawatras step up publicity drive

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Source: Flickr 

Ousted Thai prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra are distributing an increasing amount of promotional material to reconnect with supporters in apparent defiance of the military that removed them both from power.

There was a cooking display by Yingluck and a range of free books, suggesting the family still wants to return to power when the military promises to hold elections in 2017.

Yingluck, who was overthrown by a military coup in May 2014, gave photo books about herself to journalists and diplomats.

Her brother, deposed by the military in 2006, also released a coffee-table book, “Thaksin Shinawatra: Life and Times”, detailing his record as prime minister.

The Thai military has purged the bureaucracy of alleged Shinawatra sympathisers and arrested, monitored and restricted the activities of politicians loyal to the Shinawatras.

Yingluck and Thaksin are hated by the Thai military-backed royalist elite but they remain popular in their long-time support base in the country’s rural north and northeast, partly on the back of populist policies like subsidised health care.

The family’s publicity efforts are seen as an attempt to remind the rural power base of their interest and irritate the many enemies of the clan, says Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok think-tank.

“The Shinawatra family wants to send a message to the elite and to their own followers: ‘We’re still here. We haven’t disappeared’,” he said.

It seems to have that effect, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced: “Mr Thaksin’s administration was leading Thailand into a political conflict.”

The ministry announcement also referred to the fact that Thaksin faced “serious allegations” of corruption and human-rights abuses.

In a recent publicity drive on January 8, Yingluck welcomed the media to her organic vegetable garden at her Bangkok home.

She prepared a salad dressing and smiled when a photographer called her “prime minister”.

Thaksin has long pointed to the last 10 years of Thai history and asked what has been improved by military’s involvement in politics.

The junta is trying to push through yet another new constitution this month, paving the way for a 2017 election, although citizens are becoming increasingly suspicious that the military will engineer a way to push the poll back.

Neither Shinawatra sibling can compete in next year’s election but they will probably find a proxy to take part on their behalf.

Thaksin, who is still one Thailand’s richest people, fled into self-imposed exile in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

Yingluck was impeached last year by a junta-selected inquiry and excluded from political activities for five years. She is facing trial for criminal corruption charges in a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.

The distribution of thousands of 2016 calendars featuring the Shinawatra siblings was recently blocked by the authorities in their rural heartland.

“What’s this calendar for?” military strongman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the media this month. “Can any criminal distribute a calendar with his face on it, then?”

Observers query the junta’s moral authority to question the probity of the Shinawatra clan.

Another example of Thailand’s faltering democracy was seen this week when a Thai court charged a British human-rights activist with defaming a Thai fruit company, which could see him jailed for up to seven years.

Natural Fruit, Thailand’s largest canned pineapple manufacturer, accused Andy Hall of defamation and computer crimes over a study published in 2013 that he helped author for Finnwatch, a Finnish watchdog.

The report entitled “Cheap Has a High Price” alleged mistreatment of migrant workers at a Natural Fruit factory.

The firm denies the allegations.

Natural Fruit filed four lawsuits against him and is appealing the dismissal of the first.

Thailand’s defamation and computer crimes laws have been criticised for removing freedom of speech.

“I only collected raw data and took no part in analysing the data. Finnwatch officials were responsible for that,” said Hall. “They also put the report on the website, not me.”

The case is set to begin in May.

Hall is on bail but has had his passport confiscated, although he said he was allowed to leave Thailand this month for a week.

Natural Fruit has demanded 400 million baht (US$11 million) in compensation for damages.